Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Students Criticizing Professors Online: A Right or a Violation?

Do students have the right to publicly denigrate their professors?

Last week, I was contacted by the producer of the Charles Adler Radio Show (great host by the way) to offer my opinion on a court case involving the University of Calgary and two of its former students (see here and here). The students in question had taken a course with a sessional lecturer whose performance in the classroom had apparently been well below par. They decided to express their frustrations by creating a Facebook page that was less than complimentary toward the instructor ("I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with Aruna Mitra."). The university felt that in so doing, they had committed a non-academic infraction whereas the students argued that it was their right to express their opinions about the poor quality of education that they had received from this particular lecturer. The producer wanted to know whether I would be willing to defend the university's position. After some reflection, I sent her the following response (one small edit included):

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"I am a strong proponent of freedom of expression so I am unsure that I agree with the university's position. If students cannot criticize professors then I suppose that the ratemyprofessors.com website is illegal according to the University of Calgary! That said, there are issues of decorum and civility. Would a professor be allowed to set up a page with the title "I survived having student XYZ in my class this past semester?" If the student in question is allowed to post his views (I believe that he is) then I would think that the same right has to be reserved for professors. However, our professional ethics stop us from singling out a given student in a public forum. [The operative premise here is that "consumers" (ergo students) should be allowed to publicly criticize their "service providers" (ergo professors) but the same right should never extend in the opposite direction.]

Bottom line: I don't think that I can defend the university's position but I do believe that students' sense of entitlement is affecting the integrity of the pedagogic process."

Since sending off the latter email, I have thought some more about the issue and I must admit that I am now unsure where I stand on the matter. Consumers can voice their criticisms in a variety of online forums about the quality of service that they've received from a corporation (e.g., TripAdvisor). Why would this right not extend to university students? I suppose that some educators would posit that the "student as a consumer" metaphor is inappropriate within the educational context (see my earlier post here wherein I tackle this issue). If so, students' latitude of expression might be lesser than that otherwise available to the general consumer.

Students are provided numerous formal opportunities to offer their feedback regarding the pedagogic efficacy of their professors. Teaching evaluations are used in important career decisions including when applying for tenure/promotions, seeking pay raises, and contract renewals (for sessional lecturers). Incidentally, some have argued that teaching evaluations have had an adverse effect on teaching quality in that many professors "teach to the ratings". My approach has been to never compromise on the standards that I expect of my students, and I am proud to report that I have won the faculty's teaching award despite (due to?) my "tough love" style. Not all professors though can withstand the "teaching evaluations" pressures, and they end up cutting corners (e.g., grade inflation, lesser assigned workload to the students, popularity contest, etc.). Notwithstanding the debate regarding the value of teaching evaluations, it is clear that universities do provide students with a forum to air their grievances (and more generally to voice their opinions about teaching quality).

Upon further reflection, it seems to me that this is not a case about freedom of expression but about social norms and institutional rules that are meant to maintain the necessary civility needed to pursue a university's teaching mission. In the same way that a university would likely not permit a student to show up to class and repeatedly scream out "Professor X is an absolute buffoon who should be fired," one might argue that to create a Facebook page wherein a professor is publicly denigrated seems equally uncouth and uncivilized. Rules of social decorum are different from legal codes.  It is safe to assume that the military and corporations do not allow their soldiers and employees respectively to create Facebook pages titled "General X sucks" and "My boss is Satan."  In other words, there are many institutional settings where stakeholders are imposed limits regarding their code of conduct and/or freedom of expression.  Should students be absolved from such expectations?

I can find merits on both sides of the argument. What are your thoughts on this fascinating case?

On a completely unrelated note, please see my recent interviews with Reason TV and Kill Mag on my recently released book The Consuming Instinct:

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Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.


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